Guatemala, U.S. fight narcotics in Central American nation
By Dialogo August 30, 2012
WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S.A. – Guatemala and the United States have bolstered their partnership in the narcotics fight in the Central American nation that’s become a hub coveted by narco-traffickers.
Two hundred U.S. Marines recently arrived in Guatemala as part of Operation Martillo, an international mission that gathers Western Hemisphere and European nations in an effort to curtail illicit trafficking routes on both coasts of the Central American isthmus.
The U.S. is teaming with the Guatemalan military in an aggressive approach in which the U.S Navy, Coast Guard, and federal agents are assisting Guatemalan troops in shutting down narco-trafficking routes exploited by Mexico-based cartels – specifically the Los Zetas – who have established a presence in the Central American country.
The U.S. military can’t use its weapons unless it is under fire, so it is focusing on spotting suspicious boats, submarines and individuals and relaying their locations to Guatemalans forces, which handle all confiscations and arrests. The U.S. is keeping a close eye on Guatemala’s coastlines and rivers, according to the Marine Corps Times.
“Overall, the Marines are there to provide aerial detection and monitoring, and aerial surveillance so the appropriate authorities can do their job, whether it be Guatemalan military or some other form of law enforcement agency,” Staff Sgt. Earnest Barnes, the public affairs chief for Marine Corps Forces South, told Danger Room, a website that focuses on national security issues.
Working alongside the Guatemalans represents a major change in philosophy for the U.S. military, which for years had only assisted in exercises, which included training Guatemalans and helping them build public buildings and improve roads.
But Operation Martillo has made fighting drug trafficking a top priority among the 14 participating nations.
“It’s not every day that you have 200-some Marines going to a country in Central and South America aside from conducting training exercises,” Barnes told Danger Room, adding U.S. forces are assisting in communications and the building of landing sites.
An increase in drug-related violence has spurred to the U.S. to be more actively involved in Guatemala’s narcotics fight.
Here are some recent events that led President Otto Pérez’s administration to take an “iron fist” approach against narco-trafficking:
On May 16, 2011, then-Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom declared a 30-day state of emergency for the northern department of Petén after 27 farm workers were massacred at a cattle ranch over the weekend. The following day, Colom toured the cattle ranch where suspected members of the Los Zetas drug cartel killed 27 people, including a 13-year-old. It was one of the country’s worst massacres since the end of its civil war in 1996. The state of emergency gave the army extended powers, including the ability to detain suspects without warrants. Schools and businesses were closed in the region, The Associated Press reported.
On May 17, 2011, Guatemalan Hugo Álvaro Gómez Vásquez was arrested in connection with orchestrating the massacre. Gómez Vásquez was “a high-ranking leader of Los Zetas and we believe he will be linked directly to the massacre in Petén,” Colom told reporters.
In late February, Guatemalan authorities seized 200 drums of drug precursor chemicals hidden in a truck during a routine traffic stop in northern Guatemala, the National Civil Police said. The chemicals, used to produce synthetic drugs, were being transported in five trucks that were traveling through the municipality of San Benito, in the northern province of Petén, police spokesman Jorge Aguilar told reporters Feb. 24. Authorities have seized 2,600 drums of drug precursor chemicals so far this year in Guatemala, officials said.
On June 11, Pérez, who took office in January 2012, said his security forces arrested two alleged members of a Mexican drug cartel, one of whom is suspected of taking part in a 2011 massacre of the 27 farm workers. Abel de Jesús Bolvito Sánchez was arrested June 10, along with another alleged member of the Los Zetas drug gang suspected of taking part in the killings, Pérez said
On Aug. 19, Guatemalan police confiscated 405 kilograms (892 pounds) of cocaine and arrested 12 alleged smugglers at Guatemala City’s La Aurora international airport. The seven Guatemalans and five Ecuadorans arrived in a private plane, according to Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla. Police have seized 1,223 kilograms (2,696 pounds) of cocaine at the airport so far this year, according to official figures.
The presence of cartels in Guatemala has unleashed a wave of drug-related violence that is claiming lives. In 2000, the country’s murder rate was 25.8 per 100,000 residents. In 2004, it was up to 36.3 and in 2010, it was 41.4, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Global Study on Homicide 2011.
“A number of rural areas, such as Petén in the North East of Guatemala, show among the highest subnational rates in the subregion. This may occur, in particular, where the territory represents a strategic focus for the activities of organized criminal groups due to its location near national borders or key drug transit or production areas,” the report stated.
Northern Guatemala has become a key hub in the trafficking of weapons and narcotics by the Los Zetas, as the cartel continues to increase its presence throughout Central America, often leaving bodies in its wake.
“The violence continues to increase in Central America,” Gen. Douglas Fraser, the commander for the U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) told the House Armed Services Committee last year. “That’s where and why we are focusing there.”